Theistic Science. Is that plausible?

Dr. Ian Thompson, the New Zealand-born nuclear physicist, says it is. He recently published a book entitled Starting Science from God. In it, he advances an argument that science and religion to not need to be in conflict. He believes it is plausible to posit that there is a God, and to develop a theistic philosophy that meshes well with what we know from science. This book is not for light reading, but that’s good — it’s a serious book by a serious scientist about a serious subject that really digs into the big questions. Here’s a link to Dr. Thompson’s website: http://www.beginningtheisticscience.com/

On a Classmate’s Passing

Her turn has come in the great democracy of death, where all of us will follow, though we know not the day nor the hour.  But, right now, she is gone but we remain.  Why?  There are no accidents.  Jesus has left us here this long for a reason.  What unfinished business can there be, then; what things to do we have as yet not done?  There are certainly the many settings of daily life that we need to finish out on the right side of the ledger if we can – telling our spouses how precious they are to us, if we have neglected to do that, working on forgiveness to neutralize the poison of cruel things said about or done to us, helping a neighbor through a difficult time. In the words of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, my classmate’s state, 

“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do for any fellow being, let me do it now… as I shall not pass this way again.”

But as each of us contemplates that long step out of the cramped vista of natural life and onto the great stage of eternity, the larger question seems to me to be – will we have regrets for what we didn’t try, for what might have been?  Most particularly, will we regret never having tried to achieve some really great and good thing?   If we did try, it doesn’t matter if it was the longest of shots and never worked out. It doesn’t matter if we began it but it crashed and burned.  And it doesn’t matter if we were so oppressed by the burdens in our life’s journey that we had only a widow’s mite to offer.  The point is, we did give it a shot.  We did offer ourselves as tools on Jesus’ workbench, reaching to serve the highest and widest use we could imagine.  If, again, we did. 

At this very moment my classmate is talking to the ever-curious angels. So “what news from earth” (Marriage Love 182: 3, 207:2, 532, True Christian Religion 692-4) are they learning from her, about us, and others?  Are they hearing of the building of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, bringing the comfort and joy of an authentic and beautiful relationship with Him? Or is something still lacking?  Is there some great and good, and unique, contribution of ours to this work that is needed, perhaps even the main reason we’re still here?  I like to think so, for what a magnificent thing it would be to be, at last, a part of the great awakening to the full power of the two Comings.  In fact, I have this image in mind of waking in the spiritual world, when it’s my time.  In the image I am walking across the rim of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley with the angel assigned to help me through my post-death transition. “What news from earth?” he asks politely, and I turn to him and say, “After two centuries, it’s happening; it’s really, finally happening.  The good news of the Gospel of both Advents is being preached to, and welcomed by, the spiritually poor (Luke 7:22) on the great scale for which they have waited so long and that this troubled world has needed so deeply.”  My guide is surprised, but turns and gives me a big hug and shakes my hand. “I’ve prayed for this,” he says. “But come, let’s share these tidings,” and we turn our footsteps towards the city in the valley, on the banks of the river of the water of life (Revelation 22:1).

The Life on Other Planets Question

“[W]here there is an earth there are people; for people are the end for the sake of which an earth is, and nothing has been made by the Most High Creator without an end. That the end of creation is the human race, and from it a heaven, may be evident to anyone who thinks from reason. The angels also say that an earth cannot subsist without the human race, because the Divine provides all things on an earth for the sake of people.” (Arcana Coelestia 9237)

“Who can ever think that so vast a means [as the universe] exists for so small and limited an end as there would be if only one earth were inhabited, and from it alone existed heaven! What would this be for the Divine, which is infinite, and to which a thousand, nay, myriads of earths, and all of them full of inhabitants, would be little, and scarcely anything!” (Arcana Coelestia 6698, see also The Earths in the Universe 126).

These teachings don’t just apply out in the universe; they also apply to the planets of our solar system, and to both our moon and moons of Jupiter and Saturn. (Arcana Coelestia 9232-9237, Earths in the Universe 111-112)

Not all of Swedenborg’s theological works appear to be fully Divinely inspired.  There is good reason to believe that only the works he published himself are so inspired. (For details, see Which of Swedenborg’s books are Divine revelation? ).  What is the case for the teachings on extraterrestrial life? They are not simply included in the published works but repeatedly and prominently so.  They first appear as interchapter sections in the seminal work of the Second Coming, The Arcana Coelestia. In fact, the final numbers at the end of that work, 10833-7, are on this subject.  Swedenborg then, not long after he finished publication of the Arcana,  republished almost all the extraterrestrial material in a separate book, The Earths in the Universe (retitled Worlds in Space and Life on Other Planets in a more recent translation), and he refers to that material in others of his published works (Heaven and Hell 321, 192418, Married Love 532, 535, Doctrine of Life 0, Apocalypse Revealed 716, The Last Judgment 11, True Christian Religion 32, 846, 851), most extensively in Heaven and Hell 417.  Finally, he reports that the spirits from both Mercury and our moon have correspondential places in the “Greatest Person” organizational form of heaven (Arcana Coelestia 6696, 9236), which could not be the case if people had not first lived on those two places.

It has long been concluded from telescope observation that our moon does not support life as we know it, and that conclusion has been extended by data from the manned landings there. Unmanned probes to the other planets in our solar system and some of their moons have found a similar lack of life in any form. It is impossible for there to be a contradiction between the Divinely created physical operation of the universe, which is studied by science, and Divine revelation about the universe.  How then to explain the apparent inconsistency here? Since the teachings on extraterrestrial life are part of the Word of God, it means that any apparent inconsistencies are due to limitations in our understanding of revelation, of the observations of science, or of both.  The case is similar to that of belief in the Biblical miracles, which also appear to go contrary to what we know from science about the function of the universe.

A further question that might be raised here is why, in view of this perceived inconsistency, such a strong  emphasis is put on the extraterrestrial life teachings? Even common sense suggests that the intent is to draw attention, and that appears to be the case:

1. In a conversation, angels once asked Swedenborg, “What news from earth?” He replied, “This is new – the Lord has revealed things….surpassing in excellence those hitherto revealed since the beginning of the church!” And his list of things “surpassing in excellence” includes what is revealed about “the inhabitants of the planets and the earths in the universe.” (True Christian Religion 846, Married Love 532)

2. Swedenborg reports that Earths in the Universe was one of the “small works [that] were sent as a gift to all the bishops, and to many of the nobles or lords.” (Apocalypse Revealed 716)

3. He also states that “the things which have thus far been shown concerning heaven and hell and the life after death [are] for those few who are in faith. That the rest, however, may be brought to something of acknowledgment, it has been granted that I should relate such things as delight and attract the man who is desirous of having knowledge; and which at present shall be about the earths in the universe.” (Arcana Coelestia 9439, Earths in the Universe 124)

4. Swedenborg was aware that our moon did not have an atmosphere like other planets. (Earths in the Universe 111, Arcana Coelestia 9235)  Nonetheless, he related the teachings about life there without explaining how that could be possible, a predictably controversial, attention-drawing step.[1]

Looked at more closely, the Arcana Coelestia 9439 statement suggests that the teachings on extraterrestrial life are directed particularly at helping those lacking in faith develop it.  On the face of it, that seems like precisely the wrong goal to choose since, superficially considered, the apparent conflicts with scientific data would appear more likely to cause doubt than belief in revelation.  However, as always, “My thoughts are completely different from yours,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” (Isaiah 55: 8)  How, then, might these teachings contribute to development of faith?  Certainly one aspect is that they provide the reader much mind-widening thought on the big and fundamental question of God’s purpose in creating the universe, such as the statistics that there are hundreds of thousands of (inhabited) planets (Earths in the Universe 26), that the size of the heavens so far from our earth does not equal even a hundred-millionth part of heaven’s total capacity, and that heaven will never be filled. (Earths in the Universe 168, Heaven and Hell 419)

“The things contained in the little work called The Earths in the Universe were revealed and shown to me for the end that it may be known that the Lord’s heaven is immense, and that it is wholly from the human race; also that our Lord is everywhere acknowledged as the God of heaven and earth.” (Heaven and Hell 417e)

What, then, of the science side of this issue?

1. Science is supposedly built on the evidence of the senses, but in fact much of modern science is based on evidence far beyond what the senses can detect.  Instruments ranging from the electron microscope and oscilloscope to infrared sensors all detect and measure aspects of  reality that we cannot perceive directly.  In other words, the output of these instruments is a “revelation” about those aspects of reality.

2. To provide some perspective, it seems worth recalling that there are as many challenges to interpretation of the findings of science as there are of the reports of revelation. Science is not some ultimate authority, but only the best construct its practitioners have managed to come up with to date in explaining physical reality.  It has difficulties, for instance, in explaining its own ultimate building blocks, such as magnetism, gravity and energy, or  where the material of the universe came from and what caused that coming.[2]  More directly to the point, there has been discussion of how life began in the first place, especially in view of what appears to be the almost incomprehensibly tiny statistical likelihood that it would develop.[3] Finally, science  has also been confronted with the apparent inconsistency  between the second “law,” or principle, of thermodynamics, which says that things “run down” into a state of energy homogeneity, and the life process, which does just the reverse (i.e. negative entropy).[4]

3. There is a key difference between resolving the life on other planets science vs. revelation inconsistency and resolving the similar apparent conflict between the reports of the Biblical miracles and what we know from science about the mechanisms involved.  The miracles require a scientific explanation for events that did happen, while the extraterrestrial life issue is concerned with an event – finding evidence of other human habitation in extraterrestrial bodies of our solar system – that, from a scientific data point of view, apparently hasn’t happened.  The distinction is an important one because it means that the doubter of life outside of earth in our solar system must prove a negative, which can’t be done.  In the words of a famous quote that has been attributed to a variety of people, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Thus, the scientific doubter cannot say that there is no life outside of earth in our solar system’s planets or moons but only that there is, so far, a lack of data supporting the life “hypothesis.”

4. Science is not a fixed and monolithic entity. Its conclusions, its models of physical processes, are endlessly changing as new findings and models emerge.  Familiar historical examples are the change from the original incorrect ideas that the earth was flat and at the center of the universe. A more recent example involves what was the planet Pluto. Swedenborg’s revealed account of the solar system has been criticized for failing to mention the existence of the planets beyond Saturn, which were not known in his day.  Now, however, upon recent scientific reconsideration, it turns out that in the opinion of most experts Pluto does not fit the definition of a full planet after all, but is more accurately classified as a new type of “dwarf” planet[5] so that Swedenborg’s classification – i.e. leaving it off the list – was more accurate than originally thought.  And, though originally thought to be completely hostile to life, water, carbon dioxide ice, and hydrocarbons, all signs of possible life chemistry, have been found on Hyperion, one of the moons of Saturn, and ice and liquid water on Jupiter’s moon Europa.  It is also of interest that the Viking landers, which failed to find evidence of carbon chemisty on Mars, may have inadvertently destroyed their samples before they were measured. More recently, evidence has been discovered in the Phoenix Mars lander samples that liquid water has interacted with the Martian surface throughout Mars’ history, and Rover evidence of sub-surface water.  There is also recent evidence of water on both the surface and interior of our moon.

A final example isright here on earth  of what was thought to be life-denying hostile conditions:  Tube worms and other life forms that have been found living in the extreme pressures of over a mile deep in the Pacific ocean, in the complete darkness and near-freezing temperatures found there, with warmth and food provided by volcanic-like vents producing water temperatures of 750 degrees Fahrenheit.  The worms live on iron sulfide precipitates. (see National Geographic articles);[6]

The point is that science continues its history of having its understanding, its “fact” of yesterday, change in the light of new findings into a different set of “facts” today, so that what today may be seen as an inconsistency between revealed and empirically discovered truth may tomorrow be seen as all part of the same plan.

5. Another pertinent aspect of scientific investigation is the opinion the scientific investigator holds of revelation.  There are two possible approaches that may be taken, termed by the teachings of the Second Coming the affirmative vs. negative principles (2588).  Under the affirmative principle approach, the goal is to be open to interpretations of scientific truth that confirm and support the teachings of revelation.  Under the negative principle the approach is to trust only the evidence of the senses – in this case in the form of scientific data – and disbelieve any aspect of spiritual reality that cannot be proven on that basis.  The availability of both approaches is yet another aspect of the spiritual free will that is all-important (True Christian Religion 480) to human mental and spiritual life.  The object in the case of the affirmative approach, it should be noted, is not to violate scientific objectivity with regard to determining “facts” within its physical reality field of view, but to attempt integration of those facts with understanding of the truths of revelation.

The estimable spirits from Jupiter had some sobering thoughts on this question:

“The inhabitants of the earth Jupiter place wisdom in thinking well and justly of all things that happen in life. Of sciences, such as are on our earth, they know nothing whatever, nor do they wish to know. They call them shadows and compare them to clouds which hide the sun. This idea concerning the sciences they have conceived from some spirits from our earth who boasted that they were wise from sciences. The spirits from our earth who thus boasted were such as defined wisdom as consisting in things having to do merely with the memory, as in languages, especially the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, in  knowledge of the things related in the literary world, in criticism, in mere experiments, and in terms, particularly such as are philosophical, with other things of a like nature. They do not use such things as means leading to wisdom, but define wisdom as consisting in those things themselves. Such persons, because they have not cultivated their rational faculty by the sciences, as means leading to wisdom, have little perception in the other life; for they see only in terms, and from terms, in which case those things are as dust and clouds obstructing the intellectual sight, and they who have been proud of their learning therefrom have still less perception; but they who have used the sciences as means of invalidating and annihilating the things having to do with the church and faith have totally destroyed their intellectual faculty, and like owls they see in the thick darkness falsity for truth, and evil for good.

“The spirits of Jupiter, from the conversation they had with such people, concluded that sciences induce obscurity and blindness. But they were informed that on our earth the sciences are means of opening the intellectual sight, which sight is in the light of heaven; but because such things as relate to the mere natural and sensual life are given priority over spiritual matters, therefore the sciences to the men of our earth are means of becoming insane, namely, of confirming them as believers in mechanisms of nature rather than the Divine, and in favor of the world rather than heaven. They were further informed that the sciences in themselves are spiritual riches, and that they who possess them are like those who possess worldly riches, which in like manner are means of performing uses to your self, your neighbor, and your country, but also means of doing evil. Moreover, that the sciences are like garments, which serve for use and ornament, and also for pride, as with those who would be honored for these alone. The spirits of the earth Jupiter understood these things well; but they wondered that, being men, people should stop their thinking at means, and prefer things leading to wisdom over wisdom itself; and that they could not see that to immerse the mind in such things, and not to elevate the mind above them, was to becloud and blind it. (Earths in the Universe 62)

4. The teachings of the Second Coming tell us that some spirits of our earth have traveled widely in the spiritual world, and that some often accompanied Swedenborg during his discussions with the spirits he talked to from the various planets. A noteworthy feature of these experiences is Swedenborg’s repeated mention of how bad the spirits from our earth were, and how disliked by people from other planets.  The reasons ranged from the earth spirits confusing other spirits’ understanding of God to preaching false doctrine, injecting doubt, trying to convert other spirits, infesting and abusing them, and attempting dominion over them (Arcana Coelestia 10736, 10785, 10812, Earths in the Universe 64-66, 98, 99 ,102, 159, 162).  Our earth’s spirits, he says, were more interested in bodily and worldly things than spirits on other planets (Arcana Coelestia 6928) and, as well, “not affected with shame when they infest others.” (Arcana Coelestia 7764)

Thus, for instance,

“The spirits of [Jupiter] are utterly unwilling to be in fellowship with the spirits of our earth, because they differ in disposition and manners; for they say that the spirits of our earth are cunning, and are ingenious in plotting evils, and that they know and think little about what is good; also that they do not, as they do, acknowledge the one only Lord.” (Arcana Coelestia 8031)

Spirits from our earth would also represent a threat to the outlook of the inhabitants of Mars, where everyone is satisfied with what they have (Arcana Coelestia 7364) and where they don’t even know what hypocrisy is. (ibid., 7360)  In the case of Saturn,

…when any wish to lead astray the spirits of that earth, and draw them away from faith in the Lord, or from humility toward Him, and from uprightness of life, they say that they wish to die. When they are asked why, they say that they would rather die than be led away from the Lord. Sometimes the spirits of our earth laugh at these things, and infest them with questionings why they do so.” (Arcana Coelestia 8950)

In some cases, spirits from other earths were protected against spirits from our earth (Arcana Coelestia 9282, 9283, Earths in the Universe 148) or lived in conditions which made people from our earth afraid to approach (Arcana Coelestia 10313).  Taken together, these teachings raise the question of whether our failure to find people on other planets might be due to some kind of Divinely-provided protection that has prevented us from contacting them and repeating the history of abuses on their lives and beliefs as has so often been done here on our rather corrupt planet.

6. Finally, an interesting footnote to Swedenborg’s reports is that he tells us that our planet is the only one in the universe to have science and technology.

“[T]here [are] sciences here [on earth] which are not elsewhere, as astronomy, geometry, mechanics, physics, chemistry, medicine, optics, philosophy: and also arts, which are not known elsewhere, as those of ship-building, of casting metals, of writing upon paper, and of printing what is written by types, and so of communicating it to others on the earth, and also of preserving it for posterity for thousands of years; as I told them had been done with the Word which is from the Lord; and therefore there is a permanent Revelation on our earth.” (Earths in the Universe 136)

On every other planet Divine truth is taught by word of mouth through spirits and angels. But this manifestation is confined within families; for the human race in most earths live arranged according to families; wherefore the Divine truth thus revealed through spirits and angels is not conveyed far beyond the limits of families, and unless a new revelation is constantly given, truth is either perverted or perishes.  It is otherwise on our earth, where the Divine truth, which is the Word, remains forever in its integrity.” (Earths in the Universe 120)

This is explained by the fact that one of the main reasons that Jesus Christ was born on our planet, of all the planets in the universe, was because we had the “technology” of written and printed language, with which the Word could be written down and preserved for the ages (Arcana Coelestia 9350ff., Earths in the Universe 115-118).  From that reference source His teachings could be spread to the rest of the universe, by means of communication from those who learn of the Word in their life here on earth to all inhabitants of heaven. (Arcana Coelestia 9356)[8]

The implication of ours being the only planet with technology is that there will never be either the radio signals or spaceships of extraterrestrial origin that have long been looked for by those interested in this area.  However, there is what might be thought of as an enormous compensation:  Another long-held dream by those interested in the other planets of the universe is that some day a means will be discovered to travel the enormous distances required to reach even the nearest galaxies.  The “compensation” here is that those who get to heaven can, relatively easily, travel to meet the spirits from even the most distant planets in the universe. (Arcana Coelestia 9438)  This is possible because travel in the spiritual world is not done by spatial translation but resembles the “travel” in imagination in your mind; you just think about where you want your awareness to be and you’re there. In other words, in the spritual world, your location is experienced as a function of your (spiritual) state of mind rather than physical space location (Arcana Coelestia 10734).

Footnotes

1. It might be noted, however, that other of his reports are in keeping with the scientific facts involved, such as moon people communicating by a “thundering.” (Arcana Coelestia 9235.)  That practice would appear to create a low-frequency vibration that could be communicated to others via conduction through the moon surface in the absence of atmosphere.  Another example is Swedenborg’s description of the spirits from Jupiter as walking in a stooped posture and helping propel themselves with their hands (Earths in the Universe 55), as well as their having strong but small horses (Earths in the Universe 60), all of which facts would be consistent with Jupiter’s high gravity.

2. The “Big Bang” theory of the universe’s origin, for instance, proposes that the universe started out from a high-density mass of material but does not explain where that material came from.

3. See one calculation.

4. See Wikipedia entry on this.

5. See 2006 definition of planet in Wikipedia.

6. It has, in fact, been proposed that this setting and chemistry was the origin of life on earth.

7. D. Overbye. “Subsisting on Arsenic, Microbe May Redefine LifeNew York Times December 2, 2010

8.This is feasible since in heaven there is a single, universal language. (Arcana Coelestia 9356)

Swedenborg Project Website Launched

The Swedenborg Project — A 501(c)(3) Maryland non-Profit located in Lutherville, MD — is back online with a new mission to bring users the most up-to-date news and opinions relating to Emanuel Swedenborg.

Founded in 2000 by Director Kurt Simons, the Swedenborg Project has provided web content, articles, and news on its own sites and through syndication on others, and currently maintains an online library of out-of-print Swedenborgian classics.

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